Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What's The Craziest or Weirdest Thing You've Eaten?

If you haven't already noticed from the name of my blog, I love to eat. I'm definitely not a picky eater and I tend to focus on quantity instead of quality. In fact, I'm still famous at work for having won a eating showdown with a fellow co-worker, taking down nearly two Costco pizzas in the span of an hour. And there may or may not be a couple buffets across the country with my picture on the "do not admit" wall.

But while I can eat a lot, I'm actually not that adventurous of an eater. We've encountered some interesting foods while traveling, and often times I've let my wife do the eating while I just watched. Notable things we've come across include:

- Cat and field mice in Vietnam
- Dog and horse in China
- Guinea Pig and live termites in Peru
- Tarantulas and beetles in Cambodia

 Guinea pig in Peru, nicely butchered for us

And the latest one we encountered? Bat. Yuck.

Just the sound of that makes me cringe. Bat is a local cuisine in the Seychelles, most often served in curries. And while bats are often associated with diseases, the bats in the Seychelles are fruits bats and therefore clean to eat.

We went back and forth on whether to try bat - in fact, we asked almost all of the locals we encountered if they'd eaten it. I'd say that about 80% of them had, with the remaining ones sharing our squeamish feelings about it.  Our guide at Vallee de Mai said that he used to eat bat, until he took a job to catch and butcher them for local stores. He said that once you peel back the skin, they look exactly like humans. Even creepier.

I realize that everyone has a different definition of what constitutes crazy or weird foods. I used to laugh when I would see contestants on Fear Factor ready to barf just at the sight of thousand year old eggs. That's something I put in my rice porridge everytime!

So I'm curious, where do you stand on bat, and what's the craziest or weirdest food you've encountered on your travels?

Trip Report: Emirates Lounge at SFO

***This is part 2 of my "Camels, Bats, and Bloggers" trip report detailing a recent trip to Dubai and Seychelles, with a final stop in Las Vegas to attend the 2014 BAcon conference hosted by BoardingArea***

1. Introduction - Camels, Bats, and Bloggers
2. Emirates Lounge at SFO
3. Emirates First Class San Francisco to Dubai
4. Conrad Dubai
5. Old Dubai, Ski Dubai, and At the Top
6. Emirates Terminal B First Class Lounge at DXB
7. Emirates First Class Dubai to Mahe, Seychelles
8. Four Seasons Seychelles
9. Air Seychelles Economy Class Mahe to Praslin
10. Raffles Praslin Seychelles
11. Island Hopping - La Digue
12. Island Hopping - Praslin, Cousine, Curieuse, St. Pierre
13. Hilton Seychelles Northolme Resort and Spa
14. Emirates Business Class Mahe, Seychelles to Dubai
15. 7-Star Luxury at the Burj Al Arab
16. British Airways Lounge at DXB
17. Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai to Los Angeles via Hong Kong
18. 2014 BAcon Conference in Las Vegas + Mandalay Bay Hotel
19. American Express Centurion Lounge at LAS

With lady luck on our side, a couple days prior to departure we were able to snag 2 seats aboard the direct flight from San Francisco to Dubai. With no need for an early morning positioning flight to Chicago or Seattle, we were able to sleep-in and take our time finishing up packing.

Our flight was scheduled for 4:45pm and I had scheduled the chauffeur service, which is included with Business and First Class bookings for all US gateways, for a 1:45pm pickup. While I certainly appreciate the Emirates chauffeur service in Dubai, it was even more valuable in this case since it saved us the cost of a taxi or Uber to the airport which can easily run up to $50. We arrived at the airport shortly after 2pm, and headed over to the check-in counter.

Since I had checked-in online, we simply picked up our boarding passes, zipped through security, and made a beeline for the Emirates lounge at SFO. This is one of two Emirates lounges located in the US, with the other located at New York's JFK airport. To be perfectly honest, with just once daily service to Dubai being the only flight of the day and even with the upgrade later this year from a 777-300ER to an A380, I have no clue why Emirates has its own lounge at SFO versus partnering with another lounge. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not complaining, because this is the best lounge I've been to at SFO. Certainly better than United Airlines and Delta lounges, better than the Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific lounges, and even better than the United Global First Lounge.

We checked-in at the front counter of the lounge, and took the elevator downstairs to the main area. This place is huge - no need to fight for seating, although it did get more crowded closer to departure. Upon entering there's a sleek water feature as well as two huge TV's which were perfect for keeping up with all the Sunday action on this NFL opening weekend.

Emirates Lounge at SFO

Plane spotting from the lounge - Cathay Pacific 77W bound for Hong Kong

Our ride to Dubai - Emirates 777-300ER

Instead of getting settled in the main seating area, we headed toward the back of the lounge to the full-service restaurant area where there was a fantastic selection food and drinks which included cold appetizers, a hot buffet, and dessert bar. There were 3 lounge attendants servicing the restaurant area and regularly cleaned the tables and replenished the food items.

It's easily the best food I've had at a domestic lounge in the US, even on par with the food at the American Express Centurion lounges. The shrimp and salmon salad appetizers in particular were really tasty, and the creme brulee was just fantastic. If anything, I wish I had eaten more at the lounge since the food was much better than what we were served onboard our flight.

Emirates Lounge at SFO dining room

Appetizer and dessert selection

Hot, cold, and alcoholic drink selection

Hot buffet selection

Food selection at Emirates Lounge at SFO

Caprese salad

Shrimp appetizer

After eating, we moved back over to the main seating area and hung out for about an hour before boarding. The internet in the lounge was blazing fast - note that the lounge has three different network options (Emirates 1, Emirates 2, and Emirates 3). At first I was on Emirates 1 but the internet was really slow since that's presumably the option that most people choose. But switching over to Emirates 3 fixed that issue, so just a tip in case things are slow.

I also roamed around and checked out the other facilities which included showers, a large business center with 6 computer terminals, and a prayer room.

Shower facilities

For our 4:45pm flight boarding commenced punctually at 4:00pm and was available directly from the lounge, just as our Korean Air flight earlier this year from the British Airways lounge. This really enhances the premium cabin experience and I hope it becomes a default feature offered by all airlines. While most of the passengers stayed in the lounge presumably until the last possible minute, I dragged my wife on board right away so that I could get settled and take pictures.

As I mentioned before, I have no clue why Emirates has a lounge at SFO, but I'm glad they do. This is easily the best lounge at SFO. Unfortunately, since Emirates is not part of an alliance the lounge is not accessible unless you're flying Emirates on their once daily flight to Dubai.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Trip Report: Introduction - Camels, Bats, and Bloggers

***This is part 1 of my "Camels, Bats, and Bloggers" trip report detailing a recent trip to Dubai and Seychelles, with a final stop in Las Vegas to attend the 2014 BAcon conference hosted by BoardingArea***

1. Introduction - Camels, Bats, and Bloggers
2. Emirates Lounge at SFO
3. Emirates First Class San Francisco to Dubai
4. Conrad Dubai
5. Old Dubai, Ski Dubai, and At the Top
6. Emirates Terminal B First Class Lounge at DXB
7. Emirates First Class Dubai to Mahe, Seychelles
8. Four Seasons Seychelles
9. Air Seychelles Economy Class Mahe to Praslin
10. Raffles Praslin Seychelles
11. Island Hopping - La Digue
12. Island Hopping - Praslin, Cousine, Curieuse, St. Pierre
13. Hilton Seychelles Northolme Resort and Spa
14. Emirates Business Class Mahe, Seychelles to Dubai
15. 7-Star Luxury at the Burj Al Arab
16. British Airways Lounge at DXB
17. Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai to Los Angeles via Hong Kong
18. 2014 BAcon Conference in Las Vegas + Mandalay Bay Hotel
19. American Express Centurion Lounge at LAS

It all started with BAcon. Not the type that you get on a cheeseburger at 2AM after a long night of drinking, but the type that involves sitting in a room for 3 days with 75 other bloggers and learning some really cool stuff.

As a recent addition to the BoardingArea/Prior2Boarding family of bloggers, I was ecstatic about receiving an invitation to attend the 2014 BoardingArea Conference (BAcon) in Las Vegas. It would give me the chance to develop my amateur skill set, and to meet and network with my fellow bloggers from the BoardingArea family.

And best of all, with BAcon scheduled for mid-September, the stars aligned with work schedules to allow for one final vacation for the year leading up to it. We blocked off the time, and turned our attention to figuring out where to go.

One of the many takeways from blogging school? People freaking love lists. For some reason, we have a deep need to see things ranked in list form. Everything from weekly power rankings of all 32 NFL teams, to the 10 best things to eat in a particular city, and even stuff like ranking the 6 Kardashians from best to worst. Or are there 7? 8? They're multiplying too quickly and I can't keep track.

And a list is exactly how we ended up deciding where to spend the bulk of our two week vacation. In my opinion, beach vacations are the best type of vacation. Based on some detailed research which involved Googling "what are the best beaches", I came across this CNN list "World's 100 best beaches". Scrolling down to the bottom, I noticed that 2 of the top 5 beaches in the world, including #1 in the world accordingly to this list, were located on the island of La Digue in the Seychelles, which is located off the East Coast of Africa.

My wife isn't a big fan of complicated, long flights itineraries, and a best-case scenario for getting to the Seychelles from San Francisco would involve 2-3 connections and 24+ hours in transit each way. Given this, I knew that there could be some hiccups in getting her on board, so I made sure to use a less direct approach than simply asking:

"So, I'm leaning toward heading to the Seychelles for our trip. Seems like they have some really nice beaches there"
"Seychelles? Never heard of it, it must be really far away. How many connections will it take to get there?"
"It's where Kate Middleton and George Clooney recently went for vacation"
"I'm in!"

Getting to/from the Seychelles is actually quite easy as there are basically two choices - flying Emirates via Dubai or Etihad via Abu Dhabi. With enough Alaska Airlines and American Airlines miles on hand, respectively, I had my choice of either.

Unfortunately, when I started looking for award availability we were sort of in no-man’s land. We had missed the really early booking window (~330 days out) and the semi-early window (~4-6 months out), but hadn’t reached the last-minute window (~2 weeks out) when things really start to open up.

With about a month to go, I started to make placeholder bookings with the outbound on Emirates in Business Class via ORD, and the return from DXB where I found a great Business Class fare on Cathay Pacific which would also be a huge help in my quest to re-qualify for MVP Gold. It was a relatively low-risk move since Cathay’s cancellation policies, even on revenue tickets, is very generous and the ticket could be re-scheduled (route must stay the same, but dates can change) for free, or cancelled for $50.

I wrote about my experiences using Alaska Airlines miles to book Emirates, and in the end was able to get First Class seats aboard the direct flight from SFO to DXB just a couple days before departure. I was holding out hope for First Class seats aboard the AUH to LAX flight on Etihad which never opened up, so I decided to stick with the Cathay Pacific flights that had been booked.

My trip reports seem to be getting longer and longer. Clocking in at 19 parts, this will officially be my longest trip report to-date.

Speaking of long, that's a good way to describe the route that we took from San Francisco to Vegas. Normally, it's 414 miles each way and takes about an hour and a half. Our routing? A 2 week trip that took us around-the-world, spanning 23,866 miles. As a miles and points fanatic, when given the choice between those two, you can guess which I'd pick every single time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Don't Leave Home Without A Cash Strategy For International Travel

For most miles and points enthusiasts, cash is one of those things that has no impact on our daily lives. In fact, we'll deliberately go out of our way to avoid using it. There have been times when I've taken $20 out of the ATM, and will find that same $20 bill in my wallet a month later.

However, when traveling abroad, especially in countries that aren't as developed, cash is a necessary evil for a couple reasons:
  • In general, credit cards simply aren't accepted in as many places as back home, and you're more likely to find yourself in situations where you are dealing with small vendors or even individuals. I mean, do you really expect the guy renting surfboards by the hour at a remote beach to accept plastic?

  • Credit card fraud is a huge problem, just ask Target and Home Depot. And you're even more vulnerable while traveling abroad. While chip and pin/signature credit cards certainly help to prevent fraud, to me it all boils down to risk. The more times you swipe, the greater likelihood that something bad will happen. Even if you have no problem swiping your card for a $2 coffee at home, is it worth the risk do to so aboard?
We recently returned from a trip to Dubai and the Seychelles, and I wanted to share some tips based on our experiences.

Do your homework

The first step? Be prepared. Seems simple enough, but here are a few tips to help you get ready for your upcoming international trip:
  • Make sure you know the foreign currency conversion rates for all countries that you'll be visiting. Don't rely on the rates you'll find at airports or currency exchanges
  • Figure out the prevalence of ATM's in countries you'll be visiting. It was no surprise that Dubai has ATM's everywhere. Heck, you can even get gold at some of them. Based on my research, I also found that the Seychelles had ATM's on all of the islands we would be visiting
  • Do some rough calculations on the amount of cash you know will be needed, based on method of payments that will be accepted for tour operators, transportation, and food/lodging vendors you plan to use
  • Based on the bullets above and taking into account the duration of your trip, create a rough outline of how much you'll need at various points in time
  • Lastly, there may be specific rules that you need to know about in certain destinations. For example, as part of my research for our trip to Myanmar, I read reports that only pristine, crisp dollar bills would be accepted for exchange. I went to my local bank, requested brand new bills, and transported them to Myanmar with the same amount of care that someone would give to a newborn child. Even then, one of my bills which had the smallest of small wrinkles was not accepted. But I would have been in big trouble if I didn't know and had crumbled them all into my wallet.

Have a no-fee ATM card

I have found that the best way to get cash is through the ATM - it's a no-hassle way that ensures a competitive exchange rate. However, ATM fees are charged both by your bank as well as that ATM's bank, and can be as high as $10 for a single transaction.

This is where having a no-fee ATM card is a must when traveling aboard. For us, we use a Fidelity ATM card which reimburses us for all ATM fees. Similar cards are typically offered by other financial instantiations like Charles Schwab as well as credit unions.

Bring an emergency fund

Even if you've done all of your homework and brought your no-fee ATM card along, things can still go wrong. We were having a great time on Praslin Island in the Seychelles, and stopped by the ATM to refill on cash.

"ERROR: We are unable to contact your bank"

Uh oh. I tried our card at another ATM, same error message.

We were in a pinch and needed cash to get back to the airport, but luckily I had brought about $300 in US dollars that I was holding for situations like this. I stopped by a nearby no-commission exchange shop to get some local currency and we were on our way.

If I didn't have the emergency fund and really needed money, often times hotels will let you take a small amount of cash that can be charged to the hotel room, or as a last resort could have used my credit card for a cash advance.

Keep records and check all transactions

Even though I don't get a receipt at home when using ATM's, when traveling abroad I keep receipts for all credit card and ATM transactions. I'll throw them away only after returning home and verifying that the transactions were posted correctly.

And those two failed transactions that I mentioned above? Something seemed fishy to me, and I made sure to check those transactions online the next day. Both of them actually went through, and the money was debited from my Fidelity checking account. As soon as I noticed, I called Fidelity and was extremely pleased with their customer service response. Fidelity immediately reversed those transactions, and opened an investigation into the matter. But if I hadn't been vigilant about checking, I very well could have been out of luck.

Everyone has a different cash strategy when traveling aboard. This is mine - what's yours?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Quick Thoughts On Dubai, Including The Best Thing We Ate While Here

I went back and forth on whether to spend a couple days in Dubai versus just connecting and flying onward to the Seychelles. In the end, we decided to spend 2 nights here, and I'm really happy with that decision. From a practical standpoint, it really helped to break the trip up and give my body a head start in getting over jet lag (as I sit here and type this at 4am local time). We wish we had a bit more time, but Dubai is such a international hub for connections that we know we'll be back in the future.

Of course, a full trip report is to come, but here are some quick thoughts on our stay:

Conrad Dubai corner room

Conrad Dubai pool

The Conrad Dubai has been absolutely fantastic, and I'd highly recommend this hotel to anyone planning to visit Dubai. The hotel just opened late last year, so it still feels extremely new, and as a Hilton Gold we were treated to an upgrade to a spacious corner room and given access to the Executive Lounge which has fantastic views of the city. Hotel also features an incredible outdoor pool area. Breakfast at the restaurant and evening canapes at the lounge were just OK, but in general we didn't' have any food in Dubai that amazed us.

Walking around Old Dubai
Even though it was over 100 degrees outside, we really enjoyed our walking tour around Old Dubai and learned a lot about the culture and would recommend this. We went through the Shiekh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

 At the Top, Burj Khalifa
We purchased tickets in advance of our trip (highly recommend this if you want to visit the Burj Khalifa) but weather wasn't on our side, as the views yesterday weren't great. Overall, my wife enjoyed this experience much more than I did, and wouldn't necessarily recommend it given the cost.

Ski Dubai
However, I would recommend Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates. Even though it may seem gimmicky to some, it's undeniably a unique experience to go skiing inside a shopping mall. We went in the late afternoon when jet lag was really starting to kick-in, and if anything this helped me stay awake for 2 hours. 

And lastly, the best thing we ate on this trip? I felt like I was cheating on In-N-Out with every bite, but man that burger really hit the spot.

Shake Shack inside Dubai Mall

Monday, September 8, 2014

My Experience Using Alaska Miles To Book Emirates First Class

Sorry for the sporadic blog posts as of late - work has been absolutely crazy and has taken over my evening time, which I've historically tried to reserve for blogging (and the occasional trashy reality TV show). But I'm currently in the middle of a 2-week vacation to Dubai and Seychelles (full trip report to come!) and am looking forward to using this break from work to catch up on my blogging. As an added bonus, the trip will even include a stopover in Vegas for BACON, the annual BoardingArea conference, and I'm sure you'll be hearing a lot about that from all the bloggers in the coming weeks.

Back to the original reason for this post - after spending the first part of the year quickly accruing Alaska Airlines miles, I reached the 200,000 mile mark which is enough to book 2 one-way tickets anywhere in the world in First Class. Every since my 1st experience with Emirates last year I had been dreaming of an encore, and this would be the perfect opportunity as Emirates would provide the most efficient routing to fly from SFO to the Seychelles.

As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I'd been closely studying premium cabin award availability (either First Class or Business Class) on Emirates via Alaska Airlines miles, and provided some initial insight. For those that are looking for premium cabin seats from North America to Dubai, I provided my initial not-very-scientific ranking of the best routes for availability:

Everyday and twice on Sundays
1. Chicago (Boeing 777-200LR)
2. Houston (Boeing 777-300ER)
3. Washington DC-IAD (Boeing 777-300ER)
4. Dallas (Boeing 777-200LR)

Look hard, but it's there
5. Boston (Boeing 777-300ER)
6. Seattle (Boeing 777-300ER)

Good luck, you'll need it
7. San Francisco (Boeing 777-300ER)
8. New York-JFK (Airbus A380)
9. Los Angeles (Airbus A380)

Updates since the last post

In the end, my final routing actually ended up changing a couple times from the original post and instead of flying through Chicago, I was able to grab 2 seats in First Class aboard the direct SFO-DXB flight. Leading up the my departure date, I had been closely studying the award availability patterns and wanted to share a few of tips that may be helpful:

  • Like clockwork, Emirates award availability for almost all remaining First and Business Class seats are released on a rolling T-5 days prior to departure schedule
  • They aren't released at the same exact time each day, but typically occurs between 9pm to 1am PST
  • Phantom award availability does exist, and will lead to an error on the final step of booking. For those that have ExpertFlyer subscription, make sure to cross-reference any space you see on the Alaska Airlines website with availability on EF
  • Once award space is taken, is it NOT released back into inventory. For example, before getting the SFO-DXB seats, I had SEA-DXB seats booked. After cancelling, I kept on eye on these and the award space was never released back, despite the fact that the flight took off with just 3/8 load in First Class. So what I'm trying to say is, you snooze you lose! Book first and think later, especially if you can make changes for free
  • The free stopover is easy to book online, just make sure to use multi-city search option
  • Be prepared to book a separate positioning flight if needed - since you can only use Alaska Airlines-metal on award tickets, there is a strong possibility that you won't find a suitable routing that will take you to your North American gateway
Based on what I've learned over the past month, here is my updated not-very-scientific ranking of the best routes, specific to First Class award availability. To give some broad perspective, at some point within the T-5 days prior to my departure date, 2 First Class seats were available from all the destinations below with the exception of Chicago and Los Angeles, which I'd say is pretty darn awesome.

Consistently reliable
1. Seattle (Boeing 777-300ER)
2. Dallas (Boeing 777-200LR)
3. Washington DC-IAD (Boeing 777-300ER)
4.  Houston (Boeing 777-300ER)
5.  Boston (Boeing 777-300ER)
6. Chicago (Boeing 777-200LR) 

Need a little bit of luck
7. New York-JFK (Airbus A380)
8. San Francisco (Boeing 777-300ER)

Once in a blue moon
9. Los Angeles (Airbus A380)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

West Coast Airport Envy: This SFO-Based Flyer Is Jealous of LAX

It's just not enough that Southern California has better weather and more celebrities than Northern California - now they are getting all the latest and greatest international flight products that the airlines have to offer. I've been noticing this trend through my random award availability searches (yes, for fun I search for award availability during my free time), but as I've been planning a couple recent trips where I actually needed to book flights, this really came to light.

Here's a few examples from a random day next month:

Emirates: while both SFO and LAX only have once daily flights, the A380 out of LAX features true lie-flat Business Class seats as well as the shower spa for First Class passengers.
  • SFO: 1x service to DXB with a Boeing 77W
  • LAX: 1x service to DXB with an Airbus A380

Cathay Pacific: now that the 747's have been retired, both SFO and LAX are only serviced by  Boeing 77Ws. However, LAX has twice as many daily flights, which means twice as many award seats.
  • SFO: 2x service to HKG with Boeing 77Ws
  • LAX: 4x service to HKG with Boeing 77Ws

Singapore Airlines: SFO actually wins here on quantity, with 2 potential routes to SIN, either connecting through ICN or HKG. Both of those routes are serviced by a 77W on the longhaul sectors. However, LAX gets the nod here from a quality standpoint with the A380 featuring the much-coveted Suites. [Note that it is possible to grab 2 seats on the LAX-NRT-SIN route on the A380 at the Saver level if you book ~11 months in advance].
  • SFO: 2x service to SIN with Boeing 77Ws
  • LAX: 1x service to SIN with an Airbus A380

Korean Air: SFO just has 1 daily 77W, while the LAX route matches that, and raises with 2 Airbus A380s. As easy as Korean Air award space has been to get in the past, I've found that it has become increasingly harder to find. SFO often only has 1 seat in First Class available, while LAX almost always has 2+ seats available on at least one of the flights.
  • SFO: 1x service to ICN with a Boeing 77W
  • LAX: 3x service to ICN with a Boeing 77W and two Airbus A380s

British Airways: on top of the additional flight, the British Airways A380s feature the newest offering which even features an enhanced tasting menu specific to that route.
  • SFO: 2x service to LHR with a Boeing 747s
  • LAX: 3x service to LHR with a Boeing 77W and two Airbus A380s

Those are just a few examples that I came across through my recent searches, but I'm sure there are many more.  

Any other SFO-based flyers not feeling the love lately, and would you take an extra connection through LAX for the best product?